The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh
'The preacher is a problem for himself.'
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I have written about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in these pages before (4/14). In that column I proposed that the former pastor of Barack Obama at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ is best judged, not by two-minute video clips, but by a full reading of his sermons delivered in the prophetic tradition. It seems the problem is deeper than that.

At the end of April, Pastor Wright appeared before the National Press Club, accompanied by what seemed to be hundreds of allies in the gallery, and made a presentation so embarrassing that Senator Obama had to distance himself fully from the preacher. The most disturbing aspect of the affair was the way Wright was playing to the crowd, rolling his eyes and grinning as he showed little respect for the moderator and her questions. The preacher is not only a problem for Obama. The preacher is also a problem for himself.

He is not alone. Two prominent evangelical clergymen presented problems for Senator John McCain. At a campaign appearance earlier this year, Pastor Rod Parsley was introduced by McCain as “one of the truly great leaders in America, a moral compass, a spiritual guide.” Parsley has also appeared on a DVD claiming, “Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world.” He believes as well that America “was founded with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.” The Rev. John Hagee of Texas, whose endorsement was sought by McCain, has called the Catholic Church “a great whore” and “a false cult system.” McCain rejected the words and eventually the endorsements.

Obama wound up leaving his church of 20 years. It was not Pastor Wright who precipitated the move, but a Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, who delivered a turkey in Wright’s former congregation. Although calling his sermon-ridicule of Senator Clinton a “conversation” that he presumed was not being taped, Pfleger’s performance was a full-blown comedic put-down of Clinton’s tearful moment in New Hampshire—not because she was losing, but because Obama is black. His mocking, handkerchief-waving, tear-wiping flamboyance were there for all to see. It was a mess.

I had a different impression of Father Pfleger, based on his tireless efforts to get gun control in Chicago, stop gang crime and confront racism (which he sincerely considers a primal sin) and also from taped sermons sent to me by one of his parishioners (a white professional woman) who had found consolation in his vibrant parish community.

The upshot of Father Pfleger’s performance is that Obama has resigned from his church. As for Pfleger, he has resigned from all Obama support groups and reluctantly obeyed Cardinal Francis George’s demand that he take a temporary leave from the parish of St. Sabina, where he has been for 24 years.

I sympathize with Father Pfleger, despite his silly performance. He is 59. He has been a priest for 33 of those years, most of them at St. Sabina. As is clear from a Chicago Sun Times article by Cathleen Falsani, he is anguished by the aftereffects of his raving at Trinity. He thinks the world hates him. Worse, he admits that he has profoundly wounded the parish (which still supports him) to which he has given most of his life. “I’ve spent my life trying, No. 1, to serve God, and to build up this faith community.... I don’t want to hurt this church. I don’t want to hurt these people, who are at their jobs and workplaces having to defend their pastor.” He wrote a painful apology to his people (available on the parish Web site) for the words he used and for “my dramatization.” He called the Clinton campaign to apologize. But it was done.

Neither Pfleger nor the other three pastors are crazy persons. But they do have problems of their own. And they are the problems of the preacher. The preacher’s main temptation is in the preaching. In that wholly unmerited position and opportunity, in the context of sacred word, worship and sacrament, one is attended to, listened to by believers. There is a terrible seduction in this. One can preach to the choir and hear a chorus of approval.

As a preacher myself, I know there are few moments to compare with the affection and approval of parishioners after Mass, especially if you have been helpful in strengthening their faith. But the most distressing moment for me was the one homily I gave that evoked applause. Of course, it was gratifying; but it was disturbing. What was the applause for? The Gospel? The Eucharist? Maybe the stirring indictment of both church and state? Or for me?

There are many styles of preaching. But I have always felt a suspicion of styles that call too much attention to the preacher, whether by extravagant display or studied hyperbole. This becomes particularly dangerous when “preaching to the choir,” who applaud your indictments of everyone but the choir.

The priest preacher is a mediator. The danger is that the mediator can become the message. If the preacher is short on self-knowledge and personal restraint, his own preaching becomes, sadly, more important even than the Eucharist itself or, in non-eucharistic congregations, more important than even the Gospel. The preacher becomes the message. And that is disastrous.

The disaster finally hit Father Pfleger and the parish he loves. It also wounded Barack Obama. In the senator’s search for a new faith community, I hope he finds a church that nourishes his faith and family. I hope, also, he finds a preacher who is more into the Gospel than he is into his performance.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Rick Navarro | 4/19/2009 - 11:04pm
I was searching the internet looking for nteresting information concerning leadership in this country when I ran across this article. I am a graduate student at a small university in Texas and this is a researh topic I have been working on for some time. I am always amazed by the confusion that is created in the hearts and minds of people about their relationship with God. "Preaching to the Choir" has always been an issue that I have warned people to be careful of in their walk with the Lord. Life is difficult enough without creating more confusion and complication by not being able to "see clearly" where the priest/preacher's role ends or is limited to and what is our individual responsibility. I don't know where the right answer for leadership lies in this country right now because of such confusion but I do know that the younger generation is becoming more confused about what is truly "real" and "important," so much so that they are chosing not to play the leader role in any aspect of their lives. This is, I think, because of the two-fold effect of some church/state leaders "preaching to the choir." They, not all, are self-serving and are saying what they think the American public and the world wants to hear. Much of the rethoric is rehersed and polished and not truly coming from the heart. This is because of the dulling effect preaching to the choir has had on their sense of reality and on their "in-tune" factor with what is reality for who they are calling the "main streeters," us. Many times people assume that the public is so ignorant they need to "shepard" us because we don't know any better. No-a-days we can't tell wolves from the sheep. I firmly believe in this country and I believe in God, and I choose the rest as I see fit by weighing the facts not just the rhetoric. This artilce did say one thing right, this is a mess, and one that is in more places than one.
KC Mulville | 7/7/2008 - 2:04pm
Maybe I have a unique perspective. I’m an ex-Jesuit. In my training, I gave homilies from time to time, and I certainly studied the liturgy. But I left the Jesuits, and now I’m a daddy sitting out in the pews. Let’s face it, these days, the homilies just kill me. I was blessed, in my formation days, with daily homilies from some very spiritual men. On reflection, many of their best homilies were really only episodes, or installments, on their faith journeys. In my hazy memory, each installment made more sense because I’d heard the other stories they’d already told. In a faith community, you have the luxury of multiple faith stories being told simultaneously, often intermingling and enriching each other. The homilies were reflections by men who were spiritually on the move, but whose reflections were sharpened and focused by every day’s unique liturgy. Every day has a different set of readings, within a different season, making each liturgy a unique, time-sensitive event. The good homilists would allow every day’s liturgy to bring their spiritual journey down to earth, in a way the congregation could share. It was wonderful. Now, I listen to parish Sunday homilies. No development. No journey. Just wrapped packages of instant spiritual wisdom (which usually go splat upon delivery). Three weeks ago, the priest told us how much meaning he had discovered after watching the movie “Kung Fu Panda.” (To which I thought, if this guy was impressed by a cartoon, he’s going to be overwhelmed when he actually gets around to reading the gospels!) It all comes down to a simple truth. When I drag my kids out of bed on Sunday morning, driving to a church that never has enough parking spaces, and jockeying to find a decent seat at mass, it isn’t to listen to a priest. I didn’t come there for his sake. I came to listen to someone else.
Jerome Stack | 6/25/2008 - 9:33pm
Perhaps what Wright and Pfleger (two men whose ministry I admire and affirm) suffered at least momentarily from hubris, that old overweening pride that is the stuff of Greek drama -- and with typically disastrous results. Hubris is unfortunately not rare among ministers, even good ones, and is at the root of much of what is wrong with the leadership of the Catholic church today. Much harm is done not by people who are malicious but who are simply lacking in a healthy awareness of their strengths and limitations.
Jean Hughes, OP | 6/24/2008 - 11:35pm
As a 70 yr. old white woman, I understand white privilege and have benefited from it. As a child I could drink from any water fountain, be welcomed in any school, live in any neighborhood without fear, etc. I suspect even Hillary Clinton understood what Pfleger was talking about. Those who don’t get it wouldn’t have been exposed to it were it not for the intrusive stalker publicizing it to discredit Obama. Therefore, I was disappointed when Fr. Kavanaugh approached his analysis of the event by psychoanalyzing Fr. Pfleger. It was safe, but in my humble opinion, a missed opportunity. The African-American churches, no matter how large, are intimate, personal experiences based in oral tradition. They shout the name of Jesus and tell their stories with passion and joy - a struggling community of believers who place their trust in God in every aspect of their lives. John, you need to get out more.
Joe Mcmahon | 6/22/2008 - 7:40pm
Father Kavanagh's article gives insight and encouragement. However, I must warn priests of the paragraph beginning with "As a preacher myself ..." I am a regular parishioner, not a preacher, and I have learned to say "Thanks" to the celebrant and keep moving (or leave by another door), rather than discuss anything about the sermon, either my own reflections or what seemed dreadful. The preacher needs lavatory and morning tea before he begins another Mass. Also, adulation to the rank of Holy Orders could be in play.
Ernie Basile | 6/20/2008 - 7:56pm
One can hardly disagree with what Fr. Kavanaugh said about the two talks, one by Wright and one by Pfleger. However, the words from "Dead Man Walking" come to mind: "A man is more than the worse thing he has ever done." I grew up in St. Sabina Parish in the 40's and 50's. Predominantly Irish, it was a vibrant, active, parish that drew young people from all over. A public school kid, I was never an altar boy. But the enthusiasm of the priests I saw attracted me to thoughts of the priesthood. (I said my 1st Mass there in 1959.) A few weeks ago I visited St. Sabina's after many years. It is still the vibrant, active parish that I remembered, largely because of Fr. Pfleger. The problem with preaching in Catholic churches today is not that it is controversial, silly, or an ego-trip for the preacher....rather, it is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm and lifeless. May God send us more Wrights and Pflegers, even if they do come up with some doozies now and then.
Ronah Brown | 6/19/2008 - 7:40pm
I find it interesting that Rev. Wright and Father Pfledger are criticized for comments they made about racism in America. It would have been great if the faith community and media had been equally concerned when four little Black girls were bombed in an Alabama church, when King questioned the lack of involvement of white churches during the civil rights movement,and when segregation was the law of the land less than a half century ago. In my life time I was born in a segregated hospital, did not have the right to vote, attended segregated schools, never was able to attend a circus or a state fair because of the color of my skin. Equal protection under the law did not apply to me. Now people question Rev. Wright, and wonder why Michelle Obama (who was not born with the right to vote either in 1961) has something to say about racism, pride in the country,and feelings of white entitlement? I was Catholic many years, but I can tell you that the Catholic Church did nothing for me in the area of nourishing my faith. In fact the Anglo priest and nuns had nothing to do with the AfroAmerican community other than teach at the school, and have mass. The Bishop never spoke out about racism and injustice, neither did the Pope. Rev. Wright and Father Pfledger disturb white America because they tell the truth about racism yeterday and today in America. Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ a comfortable one? The trend today is to go to church sing a few songs, give money, and ignore the homeless, sick, and downtrodden. Churches want a comfortable position, and not be reminded of issues Rev. Wright and Father Pfledger preach about. Many people have no idea of the role of the Black church in America. It is the bridge that brought us across because no where else could we worship and take our concerns about our suffering in America. It is the center of our lives both spiritually, politically, and socially. Perhaps your readers would benefit from reading E. Franklin Fraziers book on The Black Church in America for better insight.Father Pfledger is not the reason Obama left Trinity. It was media pressure and the game of politics. I haven't heard the Churches in America complain about the death threat made on Fox News about Obama, or the disrespectful graphic reference regarding "Obamas Baby Mama."
Patrick S. Corrigan | 6/19/2008 - 1:00pm
Thank you for publishing Fr. Kavanaugh's insightful commentary on the campaign preachers. The truth is that we in the pews look for a closer relationship with God. To the extent the homilist clears the path for that, he is successful. The failure appears when the medium becomes the message. Fr. Pfleger was an embarrasment to us Catholics, and especially to those who respect Hilary Clinton.
Patrick S. Corrigan | 6/19/2008 - 1:00pm
Thank you for publishing Fr. Kavanaugh's insightful commentary on the campaign preachers. The truth is that we in the pews look for a closer relationship with God. To the extent the homilist clears the path for that, he is successful. The failure appears when the medium becomes the message. Fr. Pfleger was an embarrasment to us Catholics, and especially to those who respect Hilary Clinton.

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